McDonald's turned private investigators on fastfood critics

Emma Wilkins

The Times, June 29, 1994

McDONALD'S hired two private investigation agencies to infiltrate meetings of an environmental group that was criticising the fastfood restaurant chain, the High Court was told yesterday.

"They found that London Greenpeace was a group of individuals whose view of the world was anarchist and whose aim was the dismantling of organised society and especially capitalism," Richard Rampton QC, for McDonald's, said.

David Morris, 40, and Helen Steel, 28, were the leading lights in the group, he said. The group, based in London, has no connection with Greenpeace International.

The pair, from Tottenham, north London, are being sued for libel by McDonald's which says they were responsible for distributing leaflets attacking the company. They deny libel and say the accusations were true or fair comment.

In the leaflet, McDonald's is accused of contributing to the destruction of the environment. The accusation was completely false, Mr Rampton said. " McDonald's has never been responsible for the destruction of a single rainforest tree."

The leaflet also alleged that McDonald's products were injurious to health. Mr Rampton, who told the judge that he would refer to chips as "fries" throughout the hearing, said McDonald's sold food which, as part of a balanced diet, was nutritious.

Further allegations in the leaflet that McDonald's deterred employees from joining trade unions or exploited women and black employees were also untrue, he said.

Mr Rampton said similar accusations were being made as recently as Monday in leaflets handed out outside the court by supporters of the pair.

Mr Morris and Ms Steel are representing themselves at the hearing, which is expected to last for several months. They cannot afford a legal team and legal aid is not available for libel actions.

McDonald's became aware of the activities of London Greenpeace in 1983. With approval from the American parent company, they sent private investigators to meetings of the group in north London and Soho.

The company obtained photographs of demonstrations outside some of its London branches and copies of the allegedly libellous leaflet. Video tapes of the demonstrations taken between 1990 and 1993, which showed protesters waving banners emblazoned with "McProfits" and "Big Mac Nasty", were shown in court.

"The defendants had been identified as the principal source of poison and the plaintiffs decided to take action," Mr Rampton said. Writs for libel were issued to five members of London Greenpeace, including Mr Morris and Ms Steel, in September 1990. The three other members of the group have since apologised in court.

McDonald's had decided to pursue the libel action because of the seriousness of the accusations, Mr Rampton said. "If people were to take to heart this sort of thing, McDonald's would go out of business in a very short time."

The company was not concerned with damages but wanted an injunction preventing the further spreading of allegedly libellous material and a vindication, Mr Rampton said.

"In one sense this is a public relations exercise. The company is seeking a declaration by a judge of the High Court in England that these allegations are false, why they are false, and should not be repeated."

The hearing continues.

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